10 culturally-relevant books to inspire English language learners of all ages

March 28, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, Middle Years

The summer before I entered fourth grade, a new girl moved into my neighborhood, just a few houses down from me. Her name was Tanya and she was from Sri Lanka. She spoke very little English, except for “hi,” “bye,” “yes,” “no,” and “thank you.” There wasn’t much dynamic conversation going on between us that summer, but nonetheless we became fast friends.

When we played at Tanya’s house, I can remember her parents asking me to read to her, which I thought was a bit odd because she was a few years older than I was. Still, I would always look forward to bringing a new book over to share with her.

I recently came across an interesting study that said reading comprehension in English language learners (ELL’s) gets a boost when students are exposed to culturally-relevant books.

Mayra Linares, an NPR reporter who grew up speaking Spanish supports this idea, sharing that when it came to books, she struggled, like many ELL students, to connect with characters who didn’t look like her or speak her language.

This study reminded me of the summer I spent reading to Tanya, and made me feel a bit sheepish when I think back about the books I read to her – basically every Baby-Sitter’s Club story ever written. The books weren’t much of a stretch for me as a pre-teen, working my way through the series as an actual babysitter in Connecticut (where the fictional stories take place).

I remember the one book Tanya shared with me (and gifted me before she moved away a year later) – Madol Doova – which I’ve googled is a popular Sri Lankan children’s coming-of-age story.

By the end of the summer, we were having enough of a dialogue to understand one another and I was able to get the gist of what Madol Doova was about. In short, it’s about a boy who runs away to an island with his friends and they start a successful farming business. Tanya said it was her favorite book because the main character reminded her of her cousin Sunil, and the book’s landscape reminded her of home.

The significance of reading comprehension

Reading comprehension is what separates a skilled reader from an unskilled reader. Skilled readers don’t just read words on a page, they interact with the text and understand its contents and context.

“All literacy skills are fundamental to student academic success, but reading comprehension flows through all the subjects,” said Marcia Ranieri, a K-12 administrator for World Languages and English as a New Language in the Guilderland Central School District in Guilderland, NY.

“Reading comprehension is a base skill – you won’t be able to learn math, science, social studies if you don’t understand what you’re reading.”

Ranieri believes in the inherent value of culturally relevant literature for ELL student success.

“Culturally relevant literature helps students relate to the story and activate prior knowledge. If the students can connect in some way to the story, then they are more engaged – and they’re not just focusing on what the words mean, but what the story is saying as well,” she said.

This is why Ranieri believes that reading independence is an important growth skill for young readers.

“When young readers are able to choose the topics they want to read, they tend to gravitate towards books in topic areas that interest them. Children might choose a book about a favorite sport or animal. As educators, if we can help ELL students enjoy the process and enjoy what they’re reading through giving them something to recognize within the literature – whether a piece of themselves, or their family, or culture, then we’re helping them build a solid reading foundation, as well as helping them to become lifelong learners and readers.”

Create that spark; continue the conversation

“All students deserve meaningful and relevant experiences with literature,” she said.

“Even after your child has found the right culturally relevant books or topics, don’t stop there – continue the conversation,” she exclaimed. “Help create that spark and love of reading – it will open up doors and areas of interest that students might not have known about previously. All it takes is that one book!”

10 suggestions off Ranieri’s “culturally relevant bookshelf,” (along with some questions to continue the conversation!)

Parents: These books span cultures and age ranges, but are largely meant for elementary-to-middle school readers — and can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless if your child is an English language learner or not.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
The Name Jar tells the story of Unhei, a little girl who has just immigrated to America from Korea. On her bus ride to school on her first day, Unhei is teased for her unique name. She decides to change her name with the help from her classmates. (Spoiler alert: In the end, Unehi realizes just how special her name is.)

Many Ways: How Families Practice Their Beliefs and Religions by Shelley Rotner
Many Ways is a non-fiction book that is accompanied by photographs and cultural texts that shows different cultural backgrounds and how families practice their beliefs and religions. It’s a simple and colorful introduction to the world’s cultures.

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee
Shorty, a young Japanese-American boy, learns to play baseball while his family is forced to live in an internment camp during WWII.

Sami and The Time of Troubles by Florence Perry Heide
Sami and The Time of Troubles tells the story a ten-year-old Lebanese boy and what daily life might is like living during a war.

I Am the World by Charles R. Smith Jr.
Bold photos and poetry depict children from across the globe, representing numerous cultures.

Hello! Goodbye! by Aliki
A book that goes through the various ways of how we say hello and goodbye, Hello! Goodbye! makes for a great resource for ELLs because it introduces language and cultural diversity.

I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien
Jin is from Korea, Maria from Guatemala and Fatimah from Somalia – all three are new students struggling to acclimate to a new school and overcome the language barrier. Starting a new school can be intimidating enough – I’m New Here is inclusive and reassuring for all students.

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh
A Migrant’s Tale is a story that reads like folklore and is reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood and The Gingerbread Man. Tonatiuh skillfully touches upon the difficult journey undocumented immigrants go through in order to make it to the United States.

La Mariposa by Francisco Jiménez
Francisco is a young immigrant boy from Mexico trying to adjust to first grade in the United States. La Mariposa creates a relatable experience for the immigrant/migrant populations, but helps teach all students empathy and inclusivity.

Looking for Lord Ganesh by Mahtab Narsimhan
A story about friendship and fitting in, Looking for Lord Ganesh shares the story of Anika, who has recently emigrated from India and is having a difficult time adjusting to her new life and school.

Questions to continue the conversation:

1. Have you ever had an experience like in this story?
2. Are the characters in this story like you or anyone in your family?
3. What was your favorite part about this story? Why?

Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She is the mother to a one-year old son – together they’re exploring the world one wobbly step at a time.

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